BWW Review: Kennedy Center-Commissioned World Premiere THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM - 1963
A number of families packed the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre Friday for the world premiere of "The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963."
Yet when the staged concert adaptation of the popular children's book began, there was neither a peep from the kids on hand nor any noticeable squirming that sometimes comes in a night at theater.
Instead, they seemed absolutely absorbed in the story of a family in Flint, Mich., who travel to a grandmother's house in Alabama in hope of straightening out a misbehaving eldest son. The arrival of the family coincides with one of the most horrific episodes of Civil Rights era, the Sept. 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Church that killed four girls age 11 to 14 and injured 22 others.
The terrorist deaths of innocents by hateful members of the KKK is a difficult thing to present to a family audience and even tougher to explain.
"People don't like folks that look like us down here," is how the young man explains racism to his little brother. (And it's a harder truth coming on a day when 50 were killed in New Zealand in the name of extremist hate).
While it's an important lesson for children of color to know, it's also a sobering reminder to adults how starkly unjust such intransigent racism can be. And it would seem difficult, if not impossible, to turn around a play after reaching such a bleak declaration.
"The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963" is based on the award-winning 1995 book by Christopher Paul Curtis (who was present at the Friday night performance), which solved the narrative by bringing the family closer and conjuring a renewed call to stand up to injustice.
The Kennedy Center-commissioned adaptation by Christina Ham does the same thing, creating a stirring moment out of one of devastation, in part by taking a pause in the narrative to let Nova Y. Payton sing a song. She's backed by a 10-piece orchestra by Joey Chancey that does a lot to underly the story of a Flint DJ looking back at his own story decades later.
Director Faye M. Price has an awful lot of talent on hand to tell the story. Unfortunately, the staged concert setting means the assembly cast doesn't move far from their canvas chairs and music stands. And on the rare occasion that they move around stage, designed like a framed house by Daniel Conway with smart, timely projections by Sarah Tundermann, the cast has to hold their scripts and sometime refer to them, as if we were seeing a final week of rehearsal instead of opening night.
Still, because of the rich talent, the audience is transported through the tones and timing of its cast, led by patriarch J. Bernard Calloway (of Boadway's "Memphis") and Tichina Arnold (of "Everybody Hates Chris," "Martin" and the current "The Neighborhood"). Longtime actress Isabell Monk O'Connor who came out of retirement to portray the grandmother, has the authority to represent a time when a strict elder could straighten out a wayward youngster.
Teenaged Dante Myles Hoagland (who played Michael Bivens in TV's New Edition bio film) is just right as the central character, suddenly confronted by such deadly hate in the world; Chad L. Coleman (Cutty the boxer in "The Wire" and currently in "The Orville") well plays the relaxed older version of Kenny, looking back.
Justin Weaks may have the most complex performance in the play, as the misbehaving older son who instead leads the way for his younger siblings. Alicia Grace, a D.C. actress who was last minute replacement for the originally announced Tony nominee Hailey Kilgore, is good at projecting a much younger child.
The weight of the tragedy in "The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963" is balanced enough by the warmth and determination of the family to create a work that will likely be as popular on stages as the book has been among young audiences.
Presented as a part of the Kennedy Center's season-long theme of The Human Journey, which seeks "a deeper understanding of the migration of people and the Resilience of humankind to overcome conflict, adversity, prejudice and injustice," the work certainly succeeds in that.
Running time: About one hour, 20 minutes, with no intermission.
"The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963" continues through March 24 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Tickets at 202-467-4600 or online.